Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Race Report: Grand Canyon Ultras - 50 Miler (May 21, 2016)

Last weekend I completed the Grand Canyon 50 Miler.  What an amazingly awesome experience.

The short version: I ran well, had a lot of fun and took loads of pictures.  I finished in 10:58, 21st overall, 6th female, 3rd AG which was my best ultra finish ever.

The long version: Read on should you dare.  This is my diary of the day and it was a LONG day.  I’ve tried to choose the best pictures which was not an easy task! If you ever plan to run this race (and I believe everyone should), this is a detailed account of the course.


THE DAY BEFORE

I left for the airport at 5:30am on Friday, the day before the race.  A 3 hour flight from Winnipeg, MB brought me to Vancouver, BC where I met up with my dear friend and running partner Sarah (@wildseads).  We had a 3 hour layover at YVR and grabbed a big breakfast too kick off our pre-race day fueling attempt to get as many calories into our bodies as possible before 4pm.

We knew once we landed in Las Vegas, we still would have a 4.5 hour drive out to the race start where we planned to sleep in our car as there were no hotel rooms available in the Grand Canyon for that night when we had registered for the race.  We were not sure what food options we would have once we left Vegas.  I was rather anxious about not having a bed, proper bathroom or hot coffee the morning of the race, not to mention that we had just received an email from the RD that it was VERY cold (2C) with a biting wind at the top of the plateau where the race start was situated.
Monument Point
Our flight was delayed so we were still in the airport when my cell phone rang with the most welcome information that a room had come available at the Kaibab Lodge for that night.  Did we want it?  I excitedly replied that we did and we celebrated that we would not need to use our sleeping bags and thermarests that night.  If our flight had been on time, we would have missed the call.  Thank-you Lord!

Our celebration was short lived however, because once we boarded the flight we sat at the gate for over an hour waiting for a plane from Osaka with 31 passengers connecting to Vegas.  Even if our flight had been on time, we knew that we would be cutting it tight to get to the race start for the 8pm cut off to leave our drop bags.  The course is very remote and they needed time to transport the bags to the appropriate aid stations for the next day,  As the clock ticked and we waited and waited, I began working on a plan B in case we missed the DB cut off.

I had planned to leave a DB at North Timp (21.5mi) and Parisawampits (36.5mi) with extra nutrition, an extra pair of shoes, socks, lighter clothes and a battery charger.  My plan had been to travel as light as possible, leaving gear I didn’t need anymore more in the drop bags and picking up what I needed along the way.  I like to eat pretty much all my own food during a race - I’ve learned that eating what I know works for me is much safer than relying only on food at aid tables.  The DB’s were all packed, labelled and ready.  Faced with the possibly of needing to carry everything I would need for the whole day set my mind to racing.  Then I remembered something my friend and Manitoban training partner Todd had texted me a few hours earlier:

“Be ready to adapt if you need to like I had to. Whatever problem you "might" encounter is not a set back but learning to adapt fast for it. Everything you need will be on a table or you'll be carrying. Take it in stride and go."


Little did he know how truly on-point his words of wisdom would turn out to be the next day.

We finally made it to Vegas, picked up our rental car, looked at the clock and accepted that no drop bags were happening that night.  So we stopped for another meal of burritos and started the 3rd leg of our journey to the land before time - driving from Las Vegas to the Kaibab Lodge.  As we drove, we started seeing elevation signs showing that we were ascending quite high.  I knew that the race was a net loss course, starting at 9000’ and ending at approx 7000’, but I had been so focused on the course profile and net change in elevation that I had failed to register that the whole thing is run at quite a high altitude.  Especially for someone living at 700’ above sea level.  I naively asked Sarah if she thought it would be an issue, and she replied, “Of course it will.  The elevation will affect you.”  I can’t believe I hadn’t thought of that, but it turned out to be good thing because there was nothing I could do about it, and I hadn’t wasted time or energy stressing about it.  At the Lodge we tore apart our drop bags, repacked and crashed.




RACE DAY

We got a good 6 hours of sleep that night and woke to a cold wind blowing and a gorgeous sunrise.  I am a person of faith, and that morning was my Sabbath.  As I walked out to the car at 5:00am, I stood looking at the sky and silently said a prayer of thanks and gratitude to God for bringing me to this incredible place, healthy and strong.  I vowed that the day was going to be a day of worship and thanksgiving no matter what happened.  He had brought me so far, and it seemed only fitting that I spend the day with Him.  For the first time, I consciously invited God to run with me that day, and told Him we were going to have a lot of fun.
“I can’t believe I’m really here"

And we were off to the race start.  It was a classically simple ultra running start ceremony of, “here’s your bib, trucker hat and shirt….Ready, GO!”

“Ok Lord, let’s run”

Leg 1: Start - Squaw Canyon
Elapsed: 9.0 miles 1:22

The first 20 miles of the course was a slow gradually downhill stretch along smooth double track, dropping from 9000’ to 7500’ in elevation.  I LOVE running downhill, and I usually go out too fast, and I vowed not to do that this time.  The first 5 miles I averaged a perfect 10:00 pace.  At first it was hard to hold back and I kept pulling myself back. By about 3 miles in I noticed I was breathing way too heavy for my pace.  I couldn’t seem to catch my breath and it started to worry me.  Had I tapered enough?  Was the long day of travel the day before affecting me now?  I shouldn’t be breathing this hard!  I had fallen into step with Brandy, a cool gal from Michigan. As we were getting to know each other I told her I needed to slow down, that I couldn’t get my breath.  “Oh, it’s the elevation”, she said.  Duh.  Of course!  I was so relieved!  It wasn’t me!

As we continued to run, our pace started slowing.  Then I started to notice runners all around me starting to walk.  Before long, all I could manage was about 20 steps of running, followed by short bouts of walking to catch my breath.  My vision started to swim and I felt dizzy.  Then I noticed that I was weaving back and forth on the trail, and my legs started feeling like jello.  No lactic burn like they usually do when fatigued from work, but almost disconnected from my body. I was very lucky that there were no major climbs in this section, because I could barely run downhill.  Even so, we rolled into Squaw Canyon Aid in less than the 1:30 that I had predicted.  They had a whole bar laid out on the table - thanks but no thanks.  I’m already dizzy and it’s only 7:22 am.  Alcohol is not going help right now! LOL  I grabbed a strawberry and continued on, just ahead of Brandy.

Leg 2: Squaw Canyon - Stina
Elapsed: 14.5 miles 2:15

About a mile out of the aid station the nausea started to hit.  I felt horrid.  My friend had set my watch up to tell me to eat every 45 min and take my salt pills every 60 min.  As the reminders started coming, I continued forcing food and pills into me, gagging the whole time.  As I stood on the side of the trail doubled over trying to keep things down, Brandy passed me asking if I was alright.  I replied,

“Nothing lasts forever.  We’re going down!”

And I repeated this mantra over and over again.  I knew that I had to keep eating and drinking.  Even though I felt like crap, if I didn’t stay on top of my nutrition, it was only going to get worse.  I had made that mistake before and sure as hell I wasn’t going to do it again. I went to check my laminated card with my cut offs, splits and elevation chart and found that I had dropped it sometime before.  Oh well, good thing I had it memorized.  It was at this point that I took stock and surrendered to the reality that this wasn’t going to be the race that I had hoped.  I was going disgustingly slowly.  But I was going to finish and I was going to see the Grand Canyon.  I decided to just let go and let the race unfold as it would.

I had been reading “How Bad Do You Want It?” by Matt Fitzgerald on the flight the day before.  My favourite chapter so far is entitled, ‘The Art of Letting Go.”  In it Matt discusses how being self-conscious and internally focused can sabotage endurance performance.

Pressure induced self-consciousness also harms performance by reducing movement efficiency.  Athletes move more efficiently when their when their attention is focused on key features of their environment rather than their own body.”  He mentioned a 2011 German study that “observed that runners consume more energy at a fixed pace when they thought about their body movements or their breathing than they did when they concentrated on the external environment.”   Simply put, “self consciousness increases perceived effort.”

I remembered this, and consciously chose not to pay attention to my symptoms of hypoxia, but to focus on the amazing scenery around me.  I was running through the forest, with big trees loosely spaced apart. The trail varied from a carpet of ponderosa pine needles, to red ribbon single track.  The colour of the dirt changed from light brown to red and back again. The double track changed to single track, then to no track.  We followed pink flags through grassy meadows and across rocky plateaus where no path existed.  I had yet to see my first glimpse of the Grand Canyon, but it had been so long since I had run in the forest that I simply enjoyed the smell of the pine and the angle of the sun as it filtered through the trees.
At the 20 mile mark we had descended to approx 7600’ which was the average altitude for the majority of the remaining part of the course.
Leg 3: Stina - North Timp
21.5 miles 3:53
I barely remember being at the Stina aid station, but I do remember repeating mantras and slowly moving along with “continuous forward progress.”  My first 3rd mantra is usually, ‘When in doubt, go slower.’  It became, ‘There is no doubt.  I’m going slower.'  And I made peace with that.

And then we reached our first view point (3:09), and after that focusing on the external environment was an easy task.

The Grand Canyon is basically a scar on the earth, but it’s still a breathtakingly majestic feature that makes you realize how small you are and how great our physical world is.  As I ran, I thought about how the earth must have looked at creation, versus how it looks now.  If this imperfect world can take my breath away, I couldn’t help but wonder what heaven will be like.

"All is have seen teaches me to trust the creator for all I have not seen."
Ralph Waldo Emerson

We had finished our long descent and were now flirting up and down between 7600’ and 7700’.  I realized as I continued on that I was running longer periods without needing to walk.  It was getting hotter and I was starting to feel warm in my long sleeved shirt and high socks. I hadn’t been needing much water up until this point, but I was getting dry and mentally starting reviewing what I needed to do when I got to North Timp.

Leg 4: North Timp - Locust (water drop)
Elapsed: 27.5 mi

At North Timp Aid I filled up my water bottles, started using Tailwind, and put 0.5L into my bladder just in case 1L wasn’t enough to get me to the next water drop.  I quickly changed into a short sleeved shirt, changed to ankle socks, grabbed some watermelon and a potato, and made a quick exit.  This was the longest aid station stop I made during the race. The volunteers there were fantastic and I appreciated them directing me to what I needed as I stumbled around in my still slightly hypoxic state.
We started passing more epic views of the canyon and I couldn’t wait to see more.  I stopped for pictures, and tried not to trip as I ran while looking to my left over the canyon.  The water drop came up much faster than I expected.  It was supposed to be at 6 miles, but there it was at 3.5 miles.  I topped up my bottles anyways, thinking that someone might have placed the drop early by mistake and that it could be a LONG stretch to Fence Aid.  I ended up being correct and was really glad I had the extra water.


Leg 5: Locust - Fence
Elapsed: 30.5miles, 6:12

Somewhere during this stretch, something happened.  All of a sudden I felt like I had just started running, like someone had dropped the clutch and shifted my into 5th gear. I found myself smiling and lightly prancing my way along the increasingly technical trail effortlessly.  I had gone from struggling to breathe and feeling dizzy, to feeing strong and light in what seemed like a matter of minutes (but in reality was probably an hour).  I must have descended far enough for long enough to restore my O2 saturation level. The trail had gotten really interesting - lots of rocks and twisty turns, continual ups and downs.  The kind of running I had been craving since leaving BC 9 months ago.  I cruised into Fence Aid 50 km into the race, feeling like a million bucks.  They asked me how I was doing, and I replied exuberantly, “I’m doing GREAT!  Now…”

Little did I know that Sarah had left this aid station just 10-15 minutes before I arrived after walking out after an injury left her unable to run further in her 50K race.  As my run turned for the better, hers was over.  Hers is her own story to tell.

Leg 6: Fence - Parisawampits
Elapsed: 36.5 miles, 7:30

After grabbing more watermelon and water, I ran strongly out of Fence Aid, yelling a, “See ya later guys!” to the awesome volunteers before starting my favorite part of the race.  I simply could not believe that I was now 50K into an 80K race and I felt absolutely spectacular.  I had been running/walking so slowly during the first half while continuing to force food into my body, that now that I had oxygen in my blood, my muscles were super fueled, glycogen loaded, and ready to go!  The best thing that had happened to me had been the altitude sickness.  It forced me to start SLOW, and I was about to have the best last third I had ever had in a race.  I noticed other runners slowing down, but I LOVED the more technical terrain and danced along the trail grinning from ear to ear.

Looking back now, I realized I was experiencing what Matt Fitzgerald calls a state of “flow.” He defines this as a complete immersion in a purposeful activity. “Endurance athletes describe the flow state as one in which they seem to become the thing they are doing. The part of the brain that normally watches the task at hand vanishes, leaving the athlete able to focus externally in a way that feels right and yields better performance.  Brain waves drop down to low frequency beta and theta waves, and neurotransmitter chemicals are released such as norepinephrine and endorphins."

I didn’t need a brain scan to know what was happening.  I just felt good.  This is why ultra runners get addicted.

Leg 7: Parisawampits - Crazy Jug
Elapsed: 42 miles

At Parisawampits, I was nearly out of fuel. I had carried enough solid fuel to last me 9 hours, plus Tailwind to supplement.  I grabbed 2 gels, ate another potato and watermelon, and filled my water bottles.  The next few legs were really short, but it was hot and I was just barely staying hydrated enough.  My lips were still wet, which was a good sign.  

Immediately after leaving Parisawampits, the run got even better.  We descended into a gully and then had to climb out of it.  The course took us up and down repeatedly, often climbing hands over feet.  It was hard, but it was stimulating and I loved it.  It reminded me of the running I had done on Vancouver Island, BC for over a decade, and I had been craving the variety of a super technical, quad blowing run.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that my feet totally remembered what to do, and that the shoes choice I had made earlier that morning still proved to be a good one (Salming Elements, shoe review to come). Other runners later complained after the race that this part was hard, but I strangely found I had the stamina and strength to continue at a steady pace while still have FUN with good form and NO PAIN! Not one bit.  This was unusual for me and I silently thanked my running buddy (God) for giving me wings to fly at that moment. I may have been flying slowly, but I was totally focused and in control almost 42 miles into a 50 mile race.  Amazing.  Mind blowing.

Coming into Crazy Jug there was a short out and back section where we had to punch our bibs, before ascending to the very busy aid station.  Runners had to enter this aid station from one direction, proceed to Monument Point in another direction, return and then head to the finish in a third direction.  Volunteers were busy directing runners and making sure we were taken care of.  THANK YOU volunteers.  You were amazing.

Leg 8: Crazy Jug - Monument Point
Elapsed: 45 miles

If I hadn’t gotten the views or the scenery that I had hoped for during the previous 42 miles, then I was about to get what I came for during the last 8.  The first 1.5 miles of this leg was down a long dirt road to the start of the Monument Point climb.  I ran hard down the road, knowing that with only 8 miles left I could stop being cautious.  Once we started climbing to Monument Point I pulled out the GoPro, put it on time lapse, and again tried not to fall off the edge of the cliffs while gawking at the scenery before me.  We reached the turn around point, I punched my bib again, and stood looking out at the grandeur of creation that stretched before me.  It was with tremendous effort that I tore myself away from the view that was so surreal it looked almost fake.  My trip was almost over.

Leg 9: Monument Point - Crazy Jug
Elapsed: 48 miles, 10:45
Another playful 1.5 miles of technical trail lead to a final 1.5 mile death march up the long road I had just descended.  No one was running now, and we hiked up that road counting the footsteps until we reached Crazy Jug again.  My stomach was going squirrelly again, and I spent a few minutes there drinking chicken broth, taking a gel and using the eco-friendly facilities.  I glanced at my watch and saw that I had 15 minutes to make my 11 hour goal.

Leg 10: Crazy Jug - Finish
Elapsed: 50 miles 10:58

I bid farewell to the volunteers, encouraged a fellow runner who was struggling with the residual effects of altitude sickness, and took off down the last 2 mile descent to the finish.  I ran hard, and finished in 10:58.  

"Thank you Lord.  That was epic."

I was shocked to find out that I had finished 21st overall, 6th female and 3rd in my AG. After a few hours hanging out at the finish line by a campfire, I went in search of Sarah (whom I had expected to see there), only to find out that she hadn’t had the race she had hoped.  I was devastated to hear her news, but so thankful for her company and presence during the weekend.

PROLOGUE

I am most happy with the fact that I finished the race feeling strong and pain-free with loads of pictures of the canyon. I am also very satisfied to note that the other 5 women who finished ahead of me were all from places like Flagstaff AZ and Moab or Salt Lake City UT.  For a flatlander from Winnipeg (elevation 700’) I felt I did pretty darn well.  This race didn’t have any epic climbs or a crazy amount of elevation gain, but it was a perfect race to give me confidence in my training strategies leading into my next goal.

Thank-you to the Ultra Adventures Team for putting on such a great and logistically complicated race - you gave us all the gift of experiencing the Grand Canyon in the coolest way possible. Thank-you to the volunteers who committed hours of their day to helping weary runners achieve their goals.  Most importantly of all, thank-you to my husband and kids.  For everything.  For allowing me the time to train.  For sacrificing precious weekend time so that mommy could run.  For believing in me and supporting me along my journey.  I would not be able to do this without you guys.

What did I learn from this race?
  • It’s possible to have a better back end than front half when you start slowly and cautiously, even when the last half is supposed to be harder. I know this, but I’ve never truly experienced it.
  • Forcing yourself to eat even when your whole body revolts is super important.  I ate more on this race than I ever had before.  And it worked.
  • Letting go and adapting on the fly is a practiced skill that pays off.
  • And finally, inviting God on my runs will never be optional again.

Next Goal: Fat Dog 70 - Aug 12, 2016

Stats:
Distance: 50 miles
Time: 10:58:39
Average Moving Pace: 12:36 min/mi
Best Pace: 7:05 min/mi
Elevation: Min 7047’ Max 9178’
Gain: 4304’  Loss: 6411’ (on my Garmin)
Calories Burned: 4631

Nutrition:
Approx 3060cal (278/hr)  615 mg caffeine
2 Pro Bars: Meal (750cal)
4 SunRype Fruit Bars (480cal)
9 scoops Tailwind (315mg caffeine 900cal)
3 Clif Shot Blok Pkgs (Black Cherry) (300mg caffeine, 600cal)
2 Hammer Gels (180cal)
1 potato (110cal)
1 strawberry
3 pretzels
1 handful potato chips
3 slices watermelon

Gear:
Shoes: Salming Elements
Pack: Salomon S-Lab 12set
Watch: Garmin Forerunner 920XT (40% charge remaining in Smart Mode, all wifi and bluetooth functions off)
Salming Elements - See my shoe review here!

2 comments:

  1. Wow Kim, what an experience!! I've said it before and will say it again MANY TIMES - "you amaze me". Thank you for sharing your experience on a Blog. Enjoyed reading all about it and seeing the beautiful pictures. What a unique way to spend a Sabbath.

    ReplyDelete
  2. amazing race. great blog. thank you for sharing. God Bless you!

    ReplyDelete